Christ the King-Archbishop B. O’Brien

Homily by Archbishop Brendan O’Brien

St. Mary’s Cathedral

Feast of Christ the King, Sunday, November 26, 2017


The feast we celebrate today, the Feast of Christ the King, was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925, at a time when secularism was on the increase and Europe was witnessing the rise of dictatorships, which saw Catholics being taken in by the promises of these earthly leaders.


At first, the feast was celebrated in October.  However, in 1970, Pope Paul VI replaced it with a very different Feast of Christ the King, to be celebrated on the last Sunday of the liturgical year.  By doing so, he removed from Christ’s Kingship any nostalgia for medieval monarchy and from the struggle of political ideologies.  Instead, this feast invites us to raise our eyes in faith to the ultimate triumph of Christ over sin and death.  Its official title is ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe’.


We see this theme expressed in our second reading today, when St Paul visualizes Jesus Christ handing over the kingdom to God the Father at the end of time.  However, this ideal kingdom is not something simply to be piously hoped for as a future gift, but is something to be worked for by Christians in the present time.  The full extent of the kingdom is indeed to be hoped for, but somehow it is also in our midst – in the process of ‘becoming’.


The first reading from the prophet Ezekiel shows how God’s kingship is unlike that of Judah’s rulers who misused their kingship to the detriment of God’s people.  God will be a true shepherd to his people.  And, in the Psalms and in the Prophets, we see this longing for God’s Kingship to be exercised through a true king of the stature of King David.


This longing is fulfilled in the incarnation.  Jesus embodies the new kingship, which is contrasted with the reign of Caesar Augustus: the power of a divine infant against earthly power.  The crucified one on whose cross Pilate affixes the notice, ‘Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews’.


Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus demonstrated his kingship, gathering the apostles as representatives of the 12 tribes of Israel, and going out to the margins of society:  to Zaacheus, to the woman at the well, eating with saints and sinners, healing and forgiving, drawing in the alienated, and taking on the powerful – the scribes, the Pharisees, and those who ruled for their own benefit.  When we reflect on the ministry of Jesus, we see the contours of the Kingdom which he has come to establish.


Today’s gospel is a parable.  It is often called the ‘Last Judgment’ and is famously portrayed by Michelangelo in a fresco behind the altar in the Sistine chapel. In fact, however, there is no judgment.  The judgment has already been made – determined by the way in which those who now stand before the Shepherd King have responded, or failed to respond, with mercy and hospitality, to those in need during their lives.  What we see is not the judgment but the sentencing, and the message is clear:  what we do now is a judgment that will be passed at the not-yet time of Christ’s final coming.  This scene can be somewhat frightening, since who among us can say that we have done all we could to carry out the works of mercy?

However, we can also see this as an invitation to contribute – to do our part in fashioning the Kingdom which Christ is bringing about.  It is by daily deeds of loving service to our brothers and sisters that the world can be transformed and made ready to be handed back to God.  This is expressed so well in the a passage from Gaudium et Spes, No.39 from the Second Vatican Council:


“For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in his Spirit have nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, community, and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished, and transfigured. This will be so when Christ hands back to his Father a kingdom eternal and universal: ”a kingdom of  truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love and peace”. On this earth, that kingdom is already present in mystery. When the Lord returns, it will be brought to full flower.”


The picture of the Judgment in the Gospel is not meant to fill us with fear and trembling.  No, it is a challenge, and not about the future but about today.


Today’s gospel shows how we are to promote the fuller coming of God’s kingdom in our world.  It comes whenever justice is done for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the oppressed.  We see in this parable that people are condemned not for doing actions which were morally wrong, but for not doing anything at all.  The actions are done (or not done) not just FOR Jesus but TO Jesus.  In other words, Jesus wants us to grasp the fact that he is truly present in every person we meet.  To recognize Jesus Christ as our Shepherd-King involves being carers or shepherds in some way ourselves; for the work of the Kingdom goes on until he comes again.